IT has been nearly two decades since social media started making its way into mainstream culture. Many businesses saw its potential for marketing to customers early on but, as with anything digital, social media is constantly evolving and that makes it hard to master. How can small businesses who don't have access to expensive marketing agencies or social media marketing experts keep up?

The good news is that even though social media trends are constantly changing, you can follow some basic principles to use social media effectively without having to spend millions.

Social media marketing basics

Like anything else in life, building a strong foundation is key to marketing successfully on social media. There are a ton of platforms available and an almost unlimited number of ways in which you can use them. You can't do everything, so you need to figure out what's going to create the biggest impact for your business.

Some helpful questions to ask at this stage are:- Who are you trying to reach? Different kinds of people use social media very differently, so you need to meet your customers where they are. This will determine which social media platforms you should focus on.

For example, a young 20-something might flock to Instagram to find trendy clothes and accessories, but a manufacturing plant owner looking for raw materials probably won't.- What do your customers use social media for?People use social media in many different ways. Some use it exclusively to keep up with friends and family; some use it to stay up to date with their favorite brands' new product releases; others use it to shop and transact; and others just want to find contact information so they can call the company or visit a branch.

Before you set up your social media accounts and plan out your posts, it's important to understand what customers will use your pages for so that you know what type of information you need to make available to them.- How much time or effort can you put into managing my social media accounts?Social media, by nature, favors profiles and pages that are very active. Posting multiple times a day would be ideal, but that takes time and effort that many small business owners just don't have.

Rather than pressuring yourself into doing what everyone else is doing, make a plan based on the time and effort you can realistically give. Whether you decide that you can commit to posting three times a day or just once a month, planning around your limitations will be much more effective than making a plan you can't stick to.

Setting up your accounts

Once you have a good idea of how you want to use social media to market your business, creating the accounts and pages is pretty easy. It only takes a few minutes on most social media platforms, but there are still a few little things you can do to help set you up for success later on:

1. Whenever possible, use a company email address to register for the account.

Although this isn't necessary, I highly recommend that you use a separate email for your business — whatever your version of [email protected] or [email protected] might be. Not only does it help you separate work from your personal life, but it also helps keep your personal information secure. It will also come off much more professional to have a company email published on your social media accounts rather than something like [email protected]

2. Use the same account handle across different channels.

This is particularly helpful for retail businesses that use more than one social media channel, and an account handle is the unique username attached to your page or account. For example, "@mybusinessph."

It's much easier to tell customers to search for one account handle on any platform rather than having them search one name on Facebook and a different one on Instagram.

3. Choose a 'main platform'

Many brands will use a few different social media platforms to market to their customers, but there's always one platform where you are likely to get the most interaction with customers. Choose a main platform to focus on and make sure to include the link on your other social media accounts. This will help direct your customers to one place, making it easier for you to manage posts and reply to people. If you want to redirect everyone to your website or redirect everyone to call you, that can work, too. The goal is to help people understand the best way to get in touch with you.

Maintaining your social media accounts

Contrary to what people might think, building a social media presence is not a quick fix and simply creating an account won't magically start bringing new customers to your business. It takes time and effort to build a following, and if you want to speed things up you may even need to spend money on ads.

Maintaining your social media accounts is probably the most important thing when it comes to achieving actual business results. If you could have someone working on it every day, that would be ideal! That's not realistic for most business owners, however, so here are the bare basics that you'll want to cover:

1. Share at least one valuable post per month just so people can see that your page is still active.

2. Even if you don't post frequently, keep an eye on your messages or set up an auto-responder to let customers know the best way to reach you.

3. Keep your account profile up to date — especially your business hours, phone number and email address.

You can do so much with social media and it can be a great way to market your business without spending much money. The important thing is not to get distracted by all the shiny new tools and to stay consistent while building your following!

Belli Caballeros is the digital marketing manager at First Circle. She has been helping digital-first brands grow their business since 2014 and is passionate about improving the financial outlook of everyday Filipinos.